A Quiet Sunday in Mandalay
click here for an up close and personal view.
Saturday, January 19, 2013
We disembark from the Amara at 8 am, heading for the Ayarwaddy Riverview Hotel. Moe Aye says that it is right “over there”, pointing to a spot a couple of hundred yards up the river, and he offers to take us there on the Amara’s little long-tail skiff. It turns out to be a 15-minute ride. Moe Aye stops at a place where the boats lining the shore are side-by-side in rows that are 5-6 deep. The bags stay on the skiff and we are escorted from boat to boat until we reach the shore. Gangplanks are laid from one boat to the next so we can get to shore.
We then walk another 15 minutes along the riverside road before we get to the hotel that was just “over there.” The bags that we had left on board the skiff have already arrived at the hotel when we finally get there. I’m left wondering why Moe Aye didn’t simply have us stay with the bags.
Getting from the hotel to the center of the city is a 15,000 kyat cab ride each way (total of around $35), so we hail a “trishaw” – a bicycle with a one-seat sidecar.
We negotiate 13,000 kyat for two trishaws for the full day, and probably could have gotten down to 10,000. I didn’t try since the difference is only around $3, an amount that is significant for the two kids we hire. The English-speaking kid (the other simply answered every question “yes”) is named Ko Re. He says that he is written up in Lonely Planet. We are skeptical until he shows us p. 223 of the current edition: “English-speaking drivers include eloquent Ko Re (firstname.lastname@example.org for appointments.”
Ko Re takes us to the Mandalay Palace as our first stop (after a camera store about which Lora has written). It is vast, perhaps a square mile area that is walled and moated. Foreigners are permitted to enter only by the Eastern gate. Most of the interior is a military installation, but the palace itself is substantial structure. It is actually a recent reconstruction; almost everything within the square mile area was destroyed by Japanese bombings in the war.
On the way out of the palace grounds we see a military band practicing – clarinets, trumpets, trombones. They sound like a cross between Chinese opera and atonal modern music. The men are out of uniform and merely standing by the roadside with sheet music on their portable music stands. Lora tries to take a photo, but she is dissuaded by a soldier sitting nearby. He is holding a Kalashnikov, and his frown is not lessened by Lora’s sweet smiling request.
After the Palace, we’re inclined to call it quits for the afternoon since everyone has said one day is more than enough for seeing Mandalay and Lora’s back is hurting from the constant bumping of the ride. We tell Ko Re that we want to go back to the hotel and he heads in that direction. At the end of the mile-long wall of the Palace grounds he points in another direction and says something that I cannot hear. Lora nods her head and off we go in the other direction, ending up at another major pagoda that Ko Re thinks that we don’t want to miss, the Shwe Nan Daw Monastary. He’s right.
Our hotel is relatively high end and new construction, but curiously short on amenities. The bathroom tub has no hot water even after letting it run 15 minutes. Lora finally discovers that if the faucet handle is turned to the cold water direction, hot water appears after 20 minutes (even though the sink gets hot water when the faucet is turned to the traditional left direction for only 10 minutes). Also, there is a 6” high tile step extending from wall to wall alongside the tub, but with 4” gap between the step and the side of the tub. When I stepped back out of the tub I discover the true function of the step; it creates a moat into which water flowing off the tub deck falls, from whence it goes down a drain at one end of the moat. Also, electricity goes off periodically, as frequently as every five minutes during some periods. It’s the only place in the country where we have experienced this.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Ko Re and Suu Suu pick us up and we are off to the Teak Pagoda inside the Shwe In Bin Monastary. We travel along the river bank, which is essentially a shantytown that extends mile after mile with plastic bags and other trash lining the road.
We pass a boat yard on the river-side of the road. Piles of steel beams and steel sheets being cut and welded at the curbside, presumably to be carried down to the water for use in building or repairing boats.
Ko Re stops in an area that has acres of parked motorbikes jammed 20 deep against each other on one side of the road. The other side is a veritable town containing dusty streets jammed with stalls that sell jade. We (foreigners) have to pay $1 entrance fee to get into the market. There are jewelry makers in some of the stalls working with very small pieces of some sort of metal that they pound with small hammers and then heat with small gas torches, and then hammer again. Some of the pieces must be gold or other valuable metal because the same stall can have work done inside a chain link enclosure, as well as in the unenclosed area.
Most of the people milling around the jade market seem to be local, not foreigners, and we see them buying bracelets by the handful, first haggling a price and then sliding the entire collection into their bags. We assume that we are in a wholesale market and these people are shopkeepers from around the city.
Then on to the Teak Pagoda, a beautiful structure located deep within a large monastery area. It’s an elevated dark teak structure built 8’-10’ off the ground on an array of 24” diameter teak columns. The pagoda interior is surrounded by a balcony that accesses the interior through narrow doorways lining each side of the structure. Each door has intricately carved teak wood figures mounted on it.
Some of the carved figures seem worn and eroded so, once again, we are unsure whether we are looking at something old or a recent reconstruction of something that was old. In any event, the place has a wonderful serenity that is enhanced by a couple of Western visitors sitting on the floor of the surrounding balcony, enjoying the solitude of the place. We wander slowly around the pagoda for 15 minutes until the tranquility is broken by the arrival of a group of Koreans.
Ko Re takes us to the Mahamuni Buddha Temple. Outside the entrance is an area of marble carving shops, with a profusion of Buddha statues in front of each. Many of the statutes have an unformed head – simply a blank block of marble on top of the carved body.
Apparently the bodies are mass produced by lesser qualified carvers, and master carvers then carve the heads. There is a group of 5 men muscling a large blank-faced statue down a lane in the same way the slaves moved stone blocks to form the pyramids; they roll the statue over a few 4” diameter sticks of wood, quickly moving the last of the sticks to the front as the statue rolls over it. We watch as it takes them almost a half hour to move the statue about 50’. How do they ever run a business if it takes 5 men pushing a statue 5 years to deliver it to a customer that is only 5 miles away?
The Mahamuni Buddha Temple itself is imposing. There is long covered corridor of shops leading from the entry gate into the temple itself. Lots of ordinary stuff for tourists like fabrics, little carved Buddhas, holographic Buddhas, Buddhas with the LED auras. But there are some terrific shops like the one in which a craftsman is tuning gongs of various sizes. He sits on the floor with an xylophone in front of him, and he hits the gong and then the xylophone. After listenting to the difference in tone, he hammers the surface of the gong to reshape it slightly. And then he repeats the process. Over and over again.
As we enter the temple itself, we see signs of its being renovated as recently as 10 – 15 years ago, including repair of the actual statue of Buddha. Various stones in the wall are engraved with the name of donors who paid for the work, sometimes with the amount of their donations. It suddenly clicks that there may be a connection between all the renovations and reconstructions, the infinite number of stupas that we have seen since arriving in the country, and a point that Orwell kept making in his book. The evil Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin felt free to pursue all of his death-dealing schemes because he could still achieve a good afterlife by building many pagodas after he achieved his nefarious goal. If so, then it seems that Burmese Buddhism itself is part of the reason for the pervasive reconstruction and new construction.
The Buddha statue in the Mahamuni Temple is, in one sense, in continuous restoration and renovation. Men can pay for the privilege of adding a piece of gold leaf to the statue. So the Buddha just keeps getting fatter and fatter, leaf by leaf.
Women do not have the same opportunity to ensure a good afterlife for themselves. They are not even allowed to enter the section of the temple closest to the statue.
After the Mahamuni Temple, we tell Ko Re that we’re ready to go back to the hotel. However, he says that we should see Mandalay Hill, which is said to be a great place to see sunsets over the city. Lora allows him to talk her into going because it is pretty close. After another 15 minutes of cycling, Ko Re clarifies that Mandalay Hill is still 30 minutes away, in the opposite direction from the hotel. Lora declines the effort and Ko Re turns in another direction. Ten minutes later he stops in front of a long line of shops. There is much confusion until Lora realizes that the word Ko Re keeps repeating as he points to one shop is “massage”. Apparently Lora had used “sore back” as her excuse for declining the trip to Mandalay Hill, and Ko Re was being the consummate guide to preserve his place in Lonely Planet.
Monday, January 21, 2013
We leave the hotel for an early morning flight to Bagan. The airport is a very long drive out of the city. The driver says that it is so far from the city because the military government had built it as a military field and wanted it to be far away from everyone.
Driving is on the right side of the road, as in the U.S., but with steering wheels on the right side of the cars and trucks as in England. The guidebook says that the strange arrangement is the result of the military government’s decision to distance the country from its British colonial past by forcing everyone to drive on the right side of the road even though all the vehicles in the country had their steering wheels on the right side to accommodate the English system. Politics and nationalism can certainly create strange situations.
Flying out of Mandalay involves curious airport security procedures. All bags, including checked bags, carry-on bags and backpacks, go on a belt through typical carry-on scanner. The security people have no idea which bags are to be checked and which will be in the cabin, and our checked bags contain a couple of kitchen knives. But they all go through without anyone paying any attention. People go through the typical metal detector. There is no requirement for people to remove cell phones or any other metal objects from their pockets, so the detector goes off with each passing person and each passing person is simply waved on to the flight gates. It’s all sort of surreal.